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Prep football: Defense drives Hermantown to state

Elliott Peterson (22) of Hermantown tries to stop Alex Leuzzo (2) of Cloquet during a regular-season game won by the Lumberjacks. The Hawks avenged the defeat in last week's Section 7AAAA final. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 2
Hermantown running back David Cornelius (21) rushes the ball against Moose Lake-Willow River early this season. The Hawks meet Willmar in a Class AAAA quarterfinal Friday. (News Tribune file photo)2 / 2

Trailing Cloquet 14-12 at halftime of the Nov. 2 Section 7AAAA final at Public Schools Stadium, Hermantown's defense went out and did something few teams have been able to do this fall — stifle the Lumberjacks. 

The Hawks held Cloquet to minus-8 yards of offense in the third quarter and kept the two-time defending section champs off the scoreboard the rest of the way to steal a 20-14 victory and secure a berth in the Class AAAA state tournament.

While Hermantown went to state in 2015 on the strength of an unstoppable offense that made 50-point outings look routine, the Hawks are using a different recipe this time around. Defensive coordinator Tyler Homstad's group hasn't yielded more than 14 points in a game.

The stinginess starts with defensive tackle Dalton Plaisted, who has amassed a team-high 92 tackles despite missing two games after separating his right shoulder Sept. 14 against Duluth Denfeld. What Plaisted lacks in size — he's 5-foot-10, 215 pounds, on the smaller side for his position — he makes up for with speed.

Sideline to sideline, the senior's motor never stops.

"To me, Dalton is the most underrated player in the entire conference," Hermantown coach Mike Zagelmeyer said. "When I sit down and watch film, I watch Dalton. You have to watch No. 72 if you like defense.

"I can't tell you where we'd be without him."

Where the Hawks are is in the state quarterfinals. They take on Willmar at 7 p.m. today in Monticello. Plaisted and his defensive cohorts will have to be as good as they've been all season against dual-threat quarterback Drey Dirksen and the Cardinals, the highest-scoring outfit in Class AAAA.

Reached Thursday afternoon, Plaisted and his teammates had just wrapped up practice on the turf at Proctor's Terry Egerdahl Memorial Field and were returning to Hermantown for a pregame pizza feast. If it was up to him, the meal likely would have come from Dairy Queen. His parents, Marc and Amy, own three of the restaurants in the area, and Plaisted works there full-time in the summer as a shift leader.

He's continued his leadership on the football field. Plaisted typically gives up plenty of pounds to the offensive linemen he's trying to beat once the ball is snapped, but he doesn't dwell on the perceived mismatch.

"I really don't see it as a disadvantage," he said. "I see it as a motivator. I like to be aggressive. I like to get after the ball and make something happen."

Hermantown is holding opponents to 9.8 points a game, with Macade Isensee's 79 tackles ranking second. David Cornelius and Adam Prouty are next at 69, and Caden Potter has 68. The Hawks have been especially dominant inside, repeatedly controlling the line of scrimmage.

Offensively, where Cornelius has rushed for 1,382 yards and 15 touchdowns, Hermantown is averaging 20.7 points. In 2015, the Hawks scored that many before halftime most nights.

"I've never seen anything like it," Zagelmeyer, an assistant coach under Daryl Illikainen at the time, said. "I always referred to that club as the Madden team."

Things haven't come quite so easily this time around. With Hermantown's defense, that hasn't been an issue.

"We've had to scratch and claw all four quarters every game," Zagelmeyer said.

CLASS AAA

Agates not running on empty

Two Harbors ended up making history in 2018, qualifying for the state tournament for the first time in 41 years, but the Agates' potent run game was slow to get going this season.

Two Harbors won its first game against Crosby-Ironton, but senior Ricky Brenna suffered a leg injury and was lost until the Agates' regular-season finale against Eveleth-Gilbert.

The Agates lost both of their next two home games, including 14-7 to Duluth Denfeld where Two Harbors failed to score an offensive touchdown, and 26-20 in overtime to Virginia three weeks later.

Two Harbors turned things around against Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin on Sept. 28 in Coleraine. Junior running backs Sam Johnson and Joey Marker exploded for a combined 383 yards rushing and three touchdowns in a surprising 26-12 win over the then-undefeated Titans.

"In that Virginia game, things were going pretty rough there and we had to make a decision," Two Harbors coach Tom Nelson said. "There was a little bit of a fork in the road. I think the kids just came together and made a decision that they were going to get more focused then they'd been all year. Our next game up was the Greenway game. We went out there and got that victory and I think that infused them with some confidence and, from there, it took off a little bit."

Two Harbors used the win as a springboard to five straight wins and a berth in the state playoffs — the Agates (8-2) will face Perham (8-2) in a Class AAA quarterfinal at 3 p.m. Saturday at Brainerd High School.

Since returning from injury, Brenna has looked like the workhouse back Nelson hoped he would be. In each of the Agates' two playoff victories, Brenna has rushed for more than 100 yards and scored a touchdown.

"They've got a really nice team," Nelson said of Perham. "They'll be bigger than us, they'll probably be faster than us. You know I get a chuckle, I take a peek at some of those boards and nobody is really giving us a chance. They're picking us to lose by 30, 40 points, but that's perfect, that's exactly the way we want it — and I hope Perham believes that.

"Our thing is we're going to go in and play our game and we're going in there to win the thing and if we can't do that, we're going to give them a heck of a fight," he said.

NINE-MAN

Cardinals respond like champions

When Cromwell-Wright's Drew Libbon left with an injury at the end of the first quarter in last week's Section 5 Nine-Man championship game, the Cardinals' season appeared on the brink of ruin. They were facing top-seeded and unbeaten South Ridge, and their starting quarterback — the one with 1,091 passing yards and 453 rushing yards — and leading tackler on defense was being loaded into an ambulance.

Cromwell-Wright met the adversity head-on and responded in championship style. Buoyed by a pick-six, the Cardinals surged to a 26-8 win to three-peat atop the section.

"I was as proud of our guys as I've ever been," Cromwell-Wright coach Jeff Gronner said.

Libbon, a senior and two-year captain, was concluding a passing play when two in-pursuit Panthers defenders collided with each other and fell on him. He was on the turf at Esko's field for about 20 minutes. Later that night at the hospital, Libbon learned that he had a dislocated hip, a rare diagnosis for a strong, healthy teenager. Best-case scenario, Gronner said, is that Libbon will be playing for the school's basketball team in 6-8 weeks.

Worst-case scenario: "It could be a long time," the coach said.

In the meantime, senior Isaac Shelton will slide from receiver to replace Libbon at QB for tonight's state tournament quarterfinal against Norman County East/Ulen-Hitterdal — unless the Cardinals are running the Wildcat package they installed at halftime vs. South Ridge. Then dynamic seniors Kannon Korpela or Cameron Cahoon will take shotgun snaps.

A year ago, Cromwell-Wright lost its speedy star, Nic Johnson, early in the state quarterfinals, an eventual 39-22 loss to Stephen-Argyle Central. When Johnson was injured, Gronner said, the Cardinals' body language told him they were effectively done. The opposite happened last week. Cromwell-Wright rallied together.

"This year, Drew goes down and they say, 'Screw it — we're going to win.' They have a confidence about them," Gronner said.

Libbon had thrown for 19 TDs and rushed for another 11. Defensively, the middle linebacker had 103 tackles.

"It's a huge loss for our team," Gronner said. "That being said, they proved to me last week that they're unfazed by it. It should be a big deal, but it's not."

The Cardinals and NCE/UH kick off at 7 p.m. today in Bemidji.

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